The idea for this project predated the Olympics and had been promoted by British Waterways (now re-de-constructed as the Canal and River Trust) as their key initiative in creating the ‘Water City’. Their intention was to create a city district of dense development along the Lee river banks in Stratford associated with high density waterside and premium floating properties, with leisure boating and transport on the water.
The lock and barrage scheme was promoted and funded by a coalition of interests and institutions involved with the Olympic development. Its stated advantage, fronted by British Waterways, was to take 50% of demolition and construction materials off already congested local roads. Initially costed by them at £8m the final construction was delivered a year late in June 2009 for £23m. By then the materials transportation problem had been largely solved by extending an already existing railhead into the Olympic construction site, a possibility everybody had long been aware of.
From then till now this lock has barely been used.
These imaginary outcomes have been delivered (not) at the cost of radically altering the ecology of the formerly tidal nearly two mile stretch of the Old River Lee by impounding it at a controlled level.
I was out one day in June 2007, by Friends (or the Red) bridge at the top end of Hackney Marsh, photographing Bream preparing to spawn in the still tidal River Lee. Film maker Kym Oeser turned up talking the talk about making a film on the impact of the Olympics on Hackney Marshes. He wanted to film what I was doing. I agreed on condition that he would place some film of the Bream on You Tube. I am very grateful that he followed through and did that. I was desperate to get someone to do it since I didn’t have the resources.
Observed numbers of Common Bream arriving in spring at their former spawning site at Hackney Marsh continued to decline after the major reconstructions of their habitat. Numbers have been catastrophically dropping from the hundreds and hundreds spawning there around 2000. The Old River Lee is now no longer tidal from Lea Bridge to Prescott Lock since 2008. Dredging of silt upstream and downstream during the breeding season in 2009 had adverse impacts also on breeding waterfowl.
Even the wizard scheme of the ‘Water City’ shows scant sign of investors piling into this dead zone of inactivity on the water. As distinct from profitable, high density, high rise flats constructed beside what used to be the towpath. We have heard that being able to say that a flat is next to water, rather than tidal mud, adds £15,000 to the value of a flat, even if you are 35 stories up.
So why did everybody involved plus many other bodies public, private and quangoid all press ahead urgently to deliver this monstrosity which has wrecked long settled upstream aquatic habitats in return for a barely believable property developers daydream?
One part of the answer is that government from the national to the Greater London Authority to the local ‘host boroughs’ bought into this construction bonanza promoted by British Waterways because one of their biggest Olympic fail nightmares was the sight and smell of huge quantities of stinking raw sewage floating through the Olympic Park, back up the tidal River Lee on an incoming tide towards Lee Bridge in Hackney, from Abbey Mills sewage pumping station during the Games. A heavy August rain storm upstream would be capable of draining from the huge London and/or Lee combined surface and sewage catchment areas and quickly overwhelming the long inadequate handling capacity of either or both the Abbey Mills sewage pumping station and Deephams sewage works at Tottenham. They were not prepared to risk the prestige of the nation or their own careers by being hostages to fortune dreading a bad weather day. Even the sight of twice daily mud banks was evidently deemed anathema for tourists.
We are getting round, they said very belatedly, to undertaking the expenditure of the billions for the construction of a brand new cross London sewage tunnel which would solve that part of the sewage nightmare. But that huge project had progressed at glacial speed because of the extent of the necessary political hustling, (both main parties wanted to avoid announcing a £2bn sewage scheme just before the 2010 general election) and a creaking then crashing economy. By the time they reached the oh shit! moment they realised the major scheme would never be anywhere near ready before the Olympics. Hence the hurried approval and late completion of the Plan B cover story scam.
The imminent arrival of a stabilised water surface on your ‘doorstep’, a dreamscape full of happy boaters, completes the property developers offer of the liquid inner city fantasy.